Home > Dinner, fish, Recipes, Seafood, Soups and Stews, Techniques > How to make cioppino (fish stew) from whole fish

How to make cioppino (fish stew) from whole fish

Yesterday was perfect for soup, as we watched the rainy tail of hurricane Irene move north.

Earlier in the day my fishmonger, Not Lin, hooked me up with my usual weekly fix of whole fish.  (I call him Not Lin because after months of calling him Lin, his wife one day said to me “his name’s Not Lin”.  Actually, his name is Ryan, so you don’t have to call him Not Lin.)  Yes, sadly it’s gotten to the point where obtaining whole fish is a special-order proposition.  And that, in fact, is the reason for this post.

Because I don’t understand why people prefer to buy fish filets.  So much waste! So much expense!  And why?  It takes just minutes to filet a fish, and there are so many nice things you can do with fish heads and carcasses.  Even if you can’t use the heads and carcasses immediately, they freeze well, or make stock from them and freeze the stock.  (Funny aside: my daughter turned on the Food Network show Chopped after dinner last night, and one of the mystery basket ingredients were fish heads.  No kidding.  If any of the wanna-be chefs had ever worked with whole fish before in their lives, which apparently they had not, they may have made a respectable showing.  The judges had to select the one that was least bad, in my opinion.)

So I thought we would use this blog, whose point is to teach people how to deal with “difficult” ingredients and teach lost (among the average eater) techniques, to teach how to begin with a whole fish (OK, ours were gutted before we got them), and turn them into filets, fish stock, and a beautiful cioppino.  Cioppino is fish stew, usually credited to San Francisco fishermen of Italian descent.  Traditionally, it has a tomato base.  Making cioppino is kind of like making chili – there are lost of recipes out there, and there is really no right or wrong way to do it.  Following a recipe is likely to lead to frustration, because so many of them have exotic, or at least lots of diverse ingredients.  Who buys like 5 kinds of seafood in a single shopping trip?  Not me.  So feel free to adapt and use whatever YOU have on hand.

I started with three fresh fish from my local fishmonger, Locals Seafood. I have a standing order for three whole fish every week. I never know what they are going to be. This week it was Sheepshead (sort of like the lovechild of Snapper and Grouper), a Sea Trout (like a freshwater trout but not as delicate), and a flounder. Note my knife sharpener in the background - fileting fish is best accomplished with a very sharp, flexible knife.

Start by slicing perpendicular to the torso, from behind the gill up to the spine - almost like you're going to cut the head off, but not so deep (cut until you encounter the resistance of the spine). If you've never done this before, you need to know that fish are generally fileted one side at a time, so you're going to work on one side, obtain one filet, then repeat on the other side. Note also that my fish were gutted and scaled before I got them. It's unlikely you'll ever encounter a fish for sale that hasn't been gutted, because that's necessary just after catching. If your fish isn't scaled, search this blog for a post called "Best fish scaler ever" to see how to scale a fish.

Now repeat that 1st cut, but across the tail.

Now slice along the back, keeping the knife edge as close to the bony middle as possible. It will be more obvious in the next photo. Slice from the 1st cut you made along the head, all the way down to the 2nd slice across the tail.

Now filet the fish by continuing to cut away the filet from the carcass. Work your way from head to tail, slicing down an inch or two at a time, then go back to the head and start again. repeat until you have fileted the fish.

Another angle on the fileting process. Pile of pin bones from previous fish on edge of cutting board (read next photo caption).

Some types of fish (like Sheepshead, and Salmon), have bones called pin bones that need to be removed. You can feel them by running your finger along the filet - they will prick you like a pin. Get yourself a pair of pliers - I have stainless pin bone pliers, but regular needlenose, or even a pair of kitchen scissors would do the trick. Just grab each pin bone you find and yank it out. Some of the flesh will come along with it. One of the fileting photos above has a pile of pin bones on the edge of the cutting board for reference.

Here are the beautiful filets of three fish. You can use them however you like, and they will freeze well, too. We'll use the Sheepshead and Sea Trout tonight in the cioppino, and we'll save the Flounder for tomorrow night. This took me about 5 minutes, literally. Now granted, I have a lot of practice. It might take you 15 minutes. But the price of these filets would have been about $45. I paid $30 for the whole fish. Is it really worth an extra $15 to you to save 15 minutes? If you make more than a dollar a minute in your spare time, I'd like to join your MLM. And, you would be robbed of the fish carcasses and heads which will make the lovely fish stock we need for the cioppino, and it would cheat the dogs out of about a pound or two of food (see later pics). No, pre-cut anything is a mystery to me.

Now take the carcasses, and cut them into pieces that will fit into your stock pot. A knife or a pair of kitchen shears will do the job.

Into the pot with all of the carcasses.

Add a few quarts of water to the carcasses, as well as whatever soup herbs you like and have around. In this case, I threw in some bay leaves, peppercorns, and thyme branches. Simmer the mixture for a couple hours, stirring once in a while. I like my strainer pot because it makes it easy to separate the fish parts from the stock later, but a collander will do the job just as well after the fact.

Here's the finished stock, before straining.

Here are the fish carcasses. We'll turn this into dog food later.

Here's the strained stock. The straining basket in the pot does most of the work, but I still poured it through a finer strainer to catch any small chuncks that got through the post strainer, which is quite coarse. We'll need about 1.5 liters for the cioppino (that measuring cup is 1 liter).

Now to start the cioppino. Saute some aromatic veg and a can of tomato paste until soft and well mixed. In this case I used onions, peppers, and garlic because it's what I had around. All together, it was probably 2 cups of veg. Once the veg is soft, add a quart (or 28 oz can) of crushed tomatoes, and about 1.5 liters of the fish stock. I forgot to photograph that step.

Once you have the aromatics, tomatoes and fish stock simmering, add some seasonings. Now don't be too dogmatic about this - whatever you like and hav is just fine. In my case, I added about 1 TBSP smoked salt, 1 TBSP smoked paprika, the zest of a lemon, a couple teaspoons of dried oregano, a pinch of saffron threads, and a big pinch of dried lemongrass.

I added a couple pounds of Yukon Gold potatoes, sliced, because I happened to have them and the skins were starting to turn green. I pan fry them first before adding to soup, as it improves the texture. Add them to the soup only after the soup has simmered for at least an hour, because you don't want the taters to overcook. Add them about 15 minutes before you want to serve, because that's all the longer they'll take to cook.

Skin the filets in preparation of going into the soup. This step isn't mandatory if you like fish skins (I do, my family doesn't). Start from the tail, and with your fileting knife cut the filet free from the skin. Should take about 20 seconds per filet.

Coarsely cut the filets. This is the filets of the Sheepshead and the Sea Trout.

Add the filets to the simmering pot. they will cook through in about 5 minutes. Stir gently once or twice while they are cooking.

Finished dish! Enjoy!

After dinner, separate the meat from bones of the carcasses you boiled, and cook the skins in a little extra stock. Chop them up for the dogs. No waste!

Now for a little costing analysis.

The fish were $30.  They made 8 portions of cioppino, and 4 portions of flounder filets. $30/12 portions = $2.50 per portion.  And that doesn’t account for the dog food I got out of it, or the extra fish stock I froze.

The cioppino used probably $3 worth of aromatics, $2 worth of potatoes, and let’s say $1 for tomato paste and herbs.  The tomatoes we canned; I used one jar, and we get about 9 jars out of a $25 box of tomatoes, so that jar was worth $2.77.  Total for ingredients exclusing fish is 3+2+1+2.77=6.77, divided by 8 portions is $0.84.

Add $0.84+$2.50 = $3.34 per portion.  You can’t buy a fast food meal for that amount.

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  1. Simon
    August 30, 2011 at 5:27 am

  2. Not Lin
    August 30, 2011 at 4:29 pm

    Nice Jim… this is what we’ve been trying to convince folks since we started the business… BUY WHOLE FISH!!! — Not Lin

    • August 30, 2011 at 6:28 pm

      Thanks Ryan! Looking forward to next week’s fish!

  3. Alisa
    September 1, 2011 at 3:32 am

    It’s funny, but I read this post start to finish. Never mind that I don’t eat fish and will never make cioppino. I just like to understand how things work.

    And now I wait for you and Not Lin to give me hell (stop autocorrecting that to he’ll you damned iPad!) for my seafood aversion. 🙂

    • September 1, 2011 at 10:15 am

      Far be it for me to lecture anyone on food preferences. But what I will say is the principle applies equally well to meat: buy cuts that are as large/whole as possible, with bones! They are less expensive and make meals with more nutrition and taste. A whole chicken, for example, provides all the cuts people extra for, plus a carcass for soup making, and a half pound of dog food. No, the idea isn’t to influence your taste, it’s to influence your technique. Thanks for reading and commenting!

      PS – I will never forget the day I introduced my brother to Osso Bucco, and saw his eyes go wide with realization when he ate marrow on toast points. Something he always thought was gross is now one of his favorite foods.

  4. Kevin Gordon
    February 13, 2012 at 5:50 pm

    Finally got around to making this, with a whole flounder I got from ‘Not Lin’ (sans the insides, of course…damn fish gut thieves!). True to the no-waste, seasonal approach that you advocate, I used collards, roasted rutabaga, and sweet potatoes for my veggies…all from Western Wake Farmers’ Market (www.westernwakefarmersmarket.org), of course. Also, since I was just making it just before going to work today, I was lazy and just used some previously made chicken stock instead of making the fish stock with the bones. Last but not least, just to prove once-and-for-all that I’m not worthy, I don’t have a dog to feed the leftover carcass to…I am going to try and chop them up to feed them to the chickens (I saw a farmer friend doing this once), since after all, chickens are omnivores too.

    Next up…turkey soup using the Little River Ranch Turkey that’s been sitting in my freezer since Thanksgiving!

    Thanks again for the inspiration.


    P.S. I have a request for a future post, if you aren’t already planning it…I have some pork liver and pig’s feet that I’m interested (albeit intimidated) in making pate/terrine with

  1. April 5, 2012 at 12:00 pm

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